NEW YORK, JULY 20 -- The lineup change was handled quietly and now Darryl Strawberry bats cleanup for the New York Mets.

Strawberry, fined twice and benched once this season by Manager Davey Johnson, inherited the No. 4 slot in the lineup Sunday when catcher Gary Carter, who usually bats fourth, was rested as usual in a day game after a night game. But Johnson said Strawberry would stay put, even when Carter plays.

"You'll see more of this lineup," Johnson said. "The middle of the lineup hasn't produced. Darryl is getting on base more than any of those guys and has been the most consistent driving in runs. He's hitting left-handed pitching better, even better than Carter, and deserves to be in the responsibility spot."

"I'm glad Davey is giving me this opportunity," Strawberry said. "It tells me that Davey wants me to bat in more situations with runners on base. That's what I want, too."

Johnson and Strawberry haven't always seen eye to eye. Johnson fined Strawberry $1,500 in spring training for missing one day's work and arriving late for another. Then Strawberry was fined $250 for being late to the ballpark two straight days in Chicago last month. Johnson kept Strawberry on the bench two days, next starting him in a meaningless exhibition game against the Class AAA Tidewater farm team.

When the first place St. Louis Cardinals played a three-game series in New York at the end of the month, Strawberry appeared at a recording studio in Manhattan but then begged off playing two of the games because he said he was sick. Teammates Wally Backman and Lee Mazzilli publicly questioned his dedication. This didn't help the atmosphere in the clubhouse.

Now, though, Johnson has pinned the Mets' second half hopes on Strawberry. "For us to make a run, we need big production from Darryl," Johnson said.

To Strawberry, the cleanup spot means two things: a vote of confidence and the chance to drive in more runs. "This is something I would have liked to have been doing from the beginning," he said.

"It'll be a big lift for me. It'll be nice seeing those ducks out there on base, knowing I have a chance to drive them in. Hopefully I'll have more opportunities to drive in runs now."

Johnson's new lineup is a departure from the left-right-left-right alignment he has favored with Keith Hernandez batting third, followed by Carter, Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds. For the moment, at least, the two lefty swingers, Hernandez and Strawberry, will be followed by right-handers McReynolds and Carter.

The Mets think they can overtake the Cardinals if they play like they did last year and the Cardinals slump.

Pitching is the primary concern. The Mets had one of the the best rotations in baseball last season, but injuries have depleted it.

Dwight Gooden, the ace, missed two months because of drug rehabilitation, and Bob Ojeda, David Cone and Rick Aguilera were hurt in May. Reliever Roger McDowell missed the season's first six weeks because of appendicitis.

"I've been going with 40 percent of my starting rotation this year," Johnson said. "Some new guys have come in and, not to say they haven't done a good job, but it's taken time for them to get established. The bullpen has been overworked because of it."

The Mets have a rotation of Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling and John Mitchell. Terry Leach, 8-0 with a 2.44 ERA, tore knee cartilage and went on the disabled list today.

The Mets need more from Darling, who has won only four of 21 starts. He did well his last three outings, winning twice.

There must also be consistency from the middle of the batting order. Hernandez and Carter have failed to hit in the clutch.

"A lot depends on what they do," Johnson said. "If they keep their pace, they'll win over 100 games. For us to win 100, we'll have to be near unbeatable. But I expect us to pick up the pace and the Cardinals to drop off."

The Cardinals have played like last year's Mets. Their pitching has been good and their hitters are averaging more than five runs a game and coming from behind to win.

"They're down three runs in an inning and winning," Johnson said. "They are doing the things we did last year and not doing this year."

The Cardinals have withstood injuries to pitchers John Tudor, Joe Magrane and Danny Cox. But slugger Jack Clark and catalyst Vince Coleman have been healthy.

"If the run production drops off, you feel that loss, and the pitching will drop off," Johnson said.

So the Mets must hope they will begin playing well and that the Cardinals will slow down.

"We have to be able to play consistent," Carter said. "We have to start to win and hope the Cardinals go into a rut. It's a matter of coming back and winning 17 of 18 like we did last year. But if they continue to play consistent we'll have no chance."